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Newt Gingrich back from the brink

By Jim Acosta, CNN Political Correspondent
November 16, 2011 -- Updated 1040 GMT (1840 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is surging in recent polls
  • Gingrich denies he's a creature of Washington
  • Gingrich staff says he raised $3 million in October

Sheffield, Iowa (CNN) -- Newt Gingrich will tell you his sudden surge in the polls surprises even him. Well, sort of. He thought it was going to come six weeks from now. Just in time for the Iowa caucuses.

A dead candidate walking just last summer, the former speaker of the House still oozes confidence. He now knows he has a real shot at the GOP nomination.

In between campaign stops in Iowa where he is climbing in the polls, Gingrich was candid about his near-death political experience in an interview with CNN.

"I've done this for 53 years. And the two hardest months were June and July," Gingrich said.

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That was when Gingrich acknowledged having a line of credit with the Tiffany's jewelry store chain that was in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Try explaining that to voters in the middle of a tough economy.

Gingrich said he learned a lot about himself in the political wilderness.

"I think a big mistake on my part was to try to bring in conventional consultants."

In the same breath, he compares himself to two conservative giants. With Gingrich, humility has its limits.

"Because I am much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, I'm such an unconventional political figure that you really need to design a unique campaign that fits the way I operate and what I'm trying to do.'

The debates changed everything. The way he mocked the press. The way he refused to attack the other candidates on stage. Conservatives in the audience gushed.

In Iowa, Republican voters will tell you they also like his ideas. Gingrich would spend billions of dollars on the National Institutes of Health to create a new brain science project. Find a cure for Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, Gingrich argues, and you cut health care costs for the elderly.

"The best way to control the cost of Medicare is to defeat the diseases and keep people healthy," he told one audience.

No brain freezes here. Gingrich riffs on domestic policy without notes or teleprompter.

Jason Arndt, a factory worker at the Sukup Manufacturing facility in Sheffield describes Gingrich as the smartest candidate in the GOP field.

"I'm with him on his ideas," Arndt said. "Almost everything he stands for I think about and go, 'That makes a lot of sense.' "

Without a hint of irony, Gingrich rails against the Washington establishment. Never mind the fact he's been a fixture of the Beltway political scene for going on three decades.

Gingrich denies he's a creature of Washington.

"You can call me anything you want to. None of my policy proposals represent the Washington establishment," Gingrich said.

There are other contradictions. Last week, he referred to Mitt Romney as a "manager." But he refused to go there during the latest debate in South Carolina.

When asked by CNN whether Romney is an authentic conservative, Gingrich gave an answer that sounded positively Clintonian.

"Depends on what you mean by authentic. I'm not going to judge Mitt Romney. The voters will judge Mitt Romney," Gingrich said.

Ultimately, Gingrich does not want to be judged on his past. He's asked voters to forgive his previous marital difficulties. He points out the government shutdown did eventually lead to budget surpluses.

Gingrich still vividly remembers the 1994 Time Magazine cover that portrayed him as "Scrooge," holding Tiny Tim's broken crutch. The cover asked: "Is Newt Gingrich's America really that heartless?"

"One of the things the elite media did was it created a caricature of me. And when people finally saw me in debates, they said, 'That can't be Newt Gingrich.' Because in fact I'm very different from the media imagery."

Gingrich is getting a chance to chase away the ghosts of political seasons past at just the right time.

His campaign staff says he raised $3 million in October. That will help him to open his first campaign office in Iowa within the next week.

"I think the people are prepared for very bold solutions," Gingrich said. Not as bold as this thought: President Newt Gingrich.

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